Ignored by the democratization wave in the '90s and disappointed by the turn of the 2011 revolutionary spring into a cold winter, the Arab world seems destined to always stumble on its path towards democracy. The reason this time is the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant.
The Arab governments' demarches to eradicate ISIL seek a short term victory since the authorities have proven no commitment to build an internal and regional environment based on justice, accountability, anti-corruption measures, freedom of speech, and fair social and economic opportunities for all their citizens. The current focus is to exclusively fight ISIL and regain Iraq and Syria without thinking ahead about the region's future. There is little discussion on how to prevent the birth and spreading of jihadist ideology in the region and beyond and, even less, on how to address the long term frustrations and disappointments of the population in order for them not to give in to the temptation of supporting and joining terrorist groups like ISIL or Al-Qaeda.
Fighting ISIL is the duty of the Arab governments, as the King of Jordan has recently said. But whose duty is to lead the region out of the status quo in which it has been trapped for decades now? Besides direct operations against ISIL, at home, the Arab governments opted for a firm hand. This is a strategy which they are extremely good at when it comes to their citizens. The ISIL moment offers a legitimate screen to the Arab regimes to regain their shaken legitimacy, strengthen their power, control their people, and quash any potential form of opposition.
The regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya following the 2011 popular uprisings set a threatening precedent for the surviving regimes as well as the incoming ones. The Arab population gained a voice and the courage to speak up, raising awareness about their potential power over the authorities. Cracking down on any forms of opposition and securing their staying in power were the main preoccupations of regional regimes following the Arab Spring. In Egypt for example, the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood offered this opportunity, but the intervention's brutality in 2013 drew a lot of negative attention, especially at the international level, and did not stop the popular discontent.
When facing a threat like ISIL whose tentacles reach beyond the region, the Arab regimes are able to slowly but legally silence any potential form of political dissidence in the name of ensuring security and fighting terrorism. Besides increasing the authorities' power to fight ISIL, at home, the anti-terrorism bills passed in Saudi Arabia in 2014 and Egypt, earlier this year, could easily serve as instruments against any individuals or groups suspected of opposing and criticizing the government.
The very broad definition of terrorism, the confusing and unclear criteria used in building a case, and the lack of clarity when it comes to investigative procedures turn into suspects anyone who does not share the authorities' view. "Security threat" or "harming national unity" are not only used by the courts when referring to sending to trial jihadists, but also against bloggers like the Saudi Raid Badawi and the Egyptian Alaa Abdel-Fattah, convicted earlier this January for violating a protest law. There is no question about the imperative need of such counter-terror laws in the fight against ISIL, but the way the authorities are trying to repress the many forms of freedom of speech proves that the Arab regimes are taking all the necessary measures to prevent any potential latent follow-ups and responses to the 2011 Arab Spring.
There is a mixed feeling of resignation and fear among the population in the region. This comes as a result of the pressure exercised on the population by the atrocities ISIL exhibited. The mass beheadings of Egyptian citizens in Libya or the setting on fire of the Jordanian pilot proved that no country is out of reach. Once a terrorist group, which seemed to have a limited regional focus, hence its name, ISIL is no longer confined to the extremities of the Arab world. In this context, despite the general discontent produced by the failure of the Arab Spring and the internal ongoing tensions, the Arab population is cornered and has no choice but to stay behind their leaders since there is great fear of living under an ISIL regime.
In the spring of 2011, while Tahrir Square was still occupied by protesters, I was having tea in the famous Al-Hurriyya Coffee House with a group of young Egyptians. Their enthusiasm was at its peak, and so was their impatience. Democracy was expected to finally take its rightful place in the Arab world over night and a failure was out of question. They were so ready to enjoy their rights, to take advantage of the freedom of speech and to keep the authorities accountable for their mistakes. But their hope was misplaced and four years later, nothing has changed. There is no doubt that the fight against ISIL is a very long and consuming process. It demands regional cohesion but also sacrifices - one of them being democracy in the region, once again.